MADISON, Wisc. — ‚??Get outta here! I know what Human Events is, all right!‚?Ě
That‚??s what a bearded, overweight man brandishing a placard proclaiming solidarity between ‚??Chicago Labor‚?Ě and their Wisconsin brethren shouted at me when I attempted to interview him at the square in front of the state capitol here.
He was one of a throng of people gathered to oppose the governor. It was the Monday evening before the nationally watched recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Union members were furious at controversial measures, which required some public sector employees to pay 6 percent of their pensions and 12 percent of their healthcare premiums, enacted last year. Unions, in and out of the Badger State, collected more than twice the petition signatures required to make Walker only the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall election. Union bosses were particularly upset that Act Ten, the state‚??s pension and healthcare reform act, also ended collective bargaining for public employees in what was the first state to permit the practice back in 1959.
The intensity of the labor-fueled effort to defeat Walker and elect Democrat Tom Barrett (whom the GOP governor had beaten in 2010) was obvious to anyone walking down State Street in Madison.
The efforts by the governor‚??s supporters were less visible, but, very clearly, they were there‚??through phone banks, Internet, mail and television. The governor‚??s funding-raising reports would indicate he had spent nearly $40 million in the first quarter‚??‚??which means he raised more money than any candidate in the country except Mitt Romney and Barack Obama,‚?Ě noted Wisconsin GOP consultant Scott Becher. In the end, more than 2.5 million voters, or 57 percent of those eligble, voted‚??the highest turnout in a Wisconsin gubernatorial race since 1962.
Despite exit polls showing the race a toss-up on June 5, it was over in an hour. Walker defeated Barrett with a decisive 53 percent of the vote, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch survived her recall, and Republicans won three of four races for state senate seats.
There are several lessons to be learned from Scott Walker‚??s victory in Wisconsin. As one radio talk show said, referring to the nickname often applied to Wisconsinites, ‚??we are all cheeseheads now.‚?Ě
1. Romney gets a boost
There were 20 headquarters‚?? for Walker throughout the state and those 20 headquarters could easily become Romney headquarters. Pundits and pols on all sides almost universally concluded that, despite recent polls showing Barack Obama leading Romney in the state, the momentum coming from Walker‚??s win puts Wisconsin‚??s 10 electoral votes in play.
Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas, whose county had a turnout of more than 70 percent and supported Walker handily, said, ‚??Romney will be here next week. The state went from being leaning blue to leaning red overnight. Gov. Walker put fire in the belly of a lot of people.‚?Ě
2. Scott Walker, Superstar
The 43-year-old governor was inarguably the man of the hour Tuesday night. Almost immediately, talk radio and the Internet were filled with discussion of how he should be Mitt Romney‚??s running mate this year or a candidate for president himself next cycle.
Walker is almost sure to be invited to speak throughout the country in coming weeks and likely will be given a primetime speaking role at the Republican National Convention this summer‚??possibly as the keynote speaker.
3. Unions‚?? worst night
No question about it. After putting in the all-out effort it did to defeat Walker, labor unions‚??particularly those representing public employees‚??came up short.
This defeat could not have come at a worse time for Big Labor. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that the ranks of public unions have dropped dramatically.
Members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees plunged by two-thirds in recent years‚??to 7,100 from 22,300‚??and the American Federation of Teachers has dropped to 6,000 from 17,000, reported the Journal.
In addition, a recent YouGov poll among voters nationwide showed that, when asked if they felt labor unions have more or less influence today than 30 years ago, 21 percent said ‚??more‚?Ě and a whopping 46 percent said ‚??less.‚?Ě
4. Odds grow on GOP Senate takeover
The odds on Republicans winning the seat of retiring Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl and thus increasing the odds on a GOP capture of the Senate grew last week.
All four Republican Senate candidates‚??former Gov. Tommy Thompson, former Rep. Mark Neumann, businessman Eric Hovde, and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald‚??strongly identified themselves with the embattled governor.
Polls now show all four either leading certain Democratic nominee and liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin or trailing her by a small margin.
5. A prairie fire for pension reform
In terms of policy, the most lasting legacy of Scott Walker‚??s ‚??walk through fire‚?Ě could well be an intensified movement in other states to limit what state employees can expect in terms of benefits from state government.
Neighboring Illinois, which is wracked by a massive $83 billion pension system debt, could easily be the next battleground on the issue of pension reform.
With Democrats controlling the governorship and both houses of the legislature, state House GOP Leader Tom Cross was unable to get anywhere with his proposal for reducing cost-of-living increases in teacher retirement plans. But, Republicans are expected to make this a key issue in their fall campaign, when all 59 state senate seats and all 118 house seats are on the ballot.
Bob Williams, former Washington legislator and now president of the Budget Solutions group that seeks answers to problems in the states, has long called unfunded pension liabilities ‚??the dark cloud on the horizon of the states,‚?Ě totaling trillions of dollars. Walker‚??s victory, he told Human Events, ‚??will accelerate the movement toward overhaul of the pension system that is just getting started in several states.‚?Ě